UPMC requires its health care employees to receive the flu vaccine. But while the vast Pittsburgh-based health system is enthusiastic about COVID-19 vaccine, it won’t immediately require its employees to get it.
The main reason is general uncertainty about the COVID-19 vaccine — the first of several vaccines in the pipeline could receive emergency approval from the U.S. government this month, possibly within days. UPMC is preparing to begin offering COVID-19 vaccine to front-line health care workers as soon as this month.
Dr. Graham Snyder, UPMC’s medical director of infection prevention and hospital epidemiology, said UPMC’s mandatory flu vaccination policy “is based on decades of experience with the influenza vaccine.”
But there’s no comparable data for a COVID-19 vaccine, or on whether a mandate is the best way to get large numbers of people to become vaccinated, Snyder said on Tuesday.
The first COVID-19 vaccine, from Pfizer, is expected to soon receive emergency approval. A second vaccine, from Moderna, is also expected to soon receive emergency approval. Distribution of at least one vaccine is expected to begin this month.
Snyder said UPMC is “very excited about the preliminary information we have about how safe the vaccine is and how it will work.”
Still, he said UPMC will conduct its own review of the vaccines before injecting any of its employees.
“Until we learn more and build our own experience with this vaccine, plus, until we see the uptake of vaccine in our communities, and have an understanding about the role that vaccination has in ending this pandemic, it’s not the right thing to make it mandatory,” he said.
He said UPMC’s independent review won’t slow down distribution plans.
UPMC doctors on Tuesday outlined their plans for receiving and distributing the COVID-19 vaccine.
Overall, they offered an enthusiastic assessment of the COVID-19 vaccine and said they plan an information campaign to persuade the public to get vaccinated.
Vaccine manufacturers began large scale production of their COVID-19 vaccines even as they carried out clinical trials that could potentially prove their vaccine unsafe or ineffective. The purpose was to be able to immediately begin distributing vaccine deemed safe and effective.
Snyder said some of the vaccine trials have taken place in Pittsburgh, with some UPMC employees participating.
He said some have experienced side affects such as fever, fatigue or arm pain, with some needing to take a day or two off from work.
He called this “a normal and healthy immune response.”
UPMC plans to first offer the vaccine to its employees who are at highest risk of exposure to COVID-19 and to high-risk residents of long term care facilities. Next will come other essential workers and people over 65 with medical conditions that put them at high risk from COVID-19.
“We are optimistic we will be able to provide vaccines for frontline health care workers who wish to receive it before the end of January,” Snyder said.
Still, UPMC officials said doses of vaccine will arrive in batches, and they don’t know how many they’ll receive initially and in subsequent shipments. They expect the eventual total to be in the “tens of thousands.”
The third and final phase of vaccine distribution will involve people who have non-essential roles in relation to the pandemic and who don’t have medical conditions that put them at high risk. The Pennsylvania Department of Health is in charge of vaccination in the state and has said getting vaccinated will be voluntary for everyone.
Dr. Donald Yealy, UPMC’s chair of emergency medicine, said Tuesday “even under the best-case scenario, it will likely be months before everyone who wants and should get a COVID-19 vaccine can actually receive one.”
Pfizer’s vaccine requires ultra-cold storage. UPMC officials said they have added freezers, but also said they routinely deal with vaccines that require similar storage, and don’t expect storage to be a problem.
Snyder said the arrival of vaccines won’t mean a quick end to the COVID-19 threat.
“I cannot stress enough that while the ability to offer a highly effective COVID-19 vaccine is truly fantastic news, it does not mean that we can stop wearing masks, distancing and washing our hands,” he said.